Full disclosure: my natural tendency is to bubble wrap – cocooning my children in cotton wool at all times. But since moving to Denmark and parenting a very loud, mini redhead and – surprise – twins, I’ve noticed that Danes do things differently.
The Viking attitude to risky play and health and safety is far more gung-ho than I had been used to and my children regularly come home with cuts, bumps and bruises. I am no stranger to A&E either. All my children attended the terrifying Danish institution known as ‘family Scouts’ as preschoolers.
Essentially: watching toddlers whittle, wield axes and play with matches. I was at one of these gatherings where I first heard myself utter the now famous family catchphrase: ‘You can have a saw once you’re four!’ to a two-year-old.
But play researchers throughout the Nordic countries have been exploring the importance of fear and risk in play to help with growth and resilience. They found while risk could in principle increase your chance of injury in the short term – in the long term it increases our chance of survival.
As a journalist and researcher, I became fascinated by this. I set out to interview as many psychologists, sociologists and childhood developmental experts as I could for my new book, How to Raise a Viking, about why Nordic children seem to grow up happier and healthier. My pan-Nordic advisory panel all agreed that children are natural risk seekers, since curiosity helps them learn. They wonder, “Is fire hot?” “If I jump off this log, what will happen?” or “What does an axe do?”
“The brain wants to increase certainty by seeking out uncertainty,” explained cognitive scientist Marc Malmdorf Andersen from Aarhus University in Denmark. In this way, “risky” or adventurous play is an important way of gathering information about the world. Studies following children from birth show that it’s not the ones who climb a tree, fall and break a leg who have a fear of heights – it’s the ones who never climbed a tree. “Play in this way has an anti-phobic affect,” says play researcher Professor Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter from Queen Maud University College in Norway.
Parent friends back home discourage their children from activities like tree climbing and unsupervised outdoor play – afraid that they’ll get hurt. And with screens and safety concerns, they also keep children inside more. But Vikings believe that we fail as caregivers if we don’t provide opportunities for risky play.
And Nordic children are regularly voted among the happiest in the world. They’re even allowed to fight sometimes, to see if they can solve disputes and get themselves ‘to the peace table’. This gives a child the idea that you can disagree, but still work things out and get along. Studies show that play-fighting is an important part of a child’s development teaching cooperation, building confidence and appropriate judgement. Play-fighting is the most common play type across all mammals but it’s also the type of play that parents and teachers are most likely to discourage – in some US institutions there’s even a zero-tolerance policy.
But not for Vikings. WWE style wrestling has now become a major part of my parenting repertoire and I’m strangely learning to love it.
So instead of just doing a risk assessment for all potentially thrilling play, perhaps we should all consider a ‘risk and benefit’ assessment. And I’ll packing extra Pokémon plasters, just in case…
You can purchase Helen Russell’s book How to Raise a Viking - The Secrets of Parenting the World’s Happiest Children from 15th February on Amazon.